Asia / Burma

Inle Lake. The (con) art of fishing.

People often say “a picture is worth a thousand words”.  A complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image or that an image of a subject conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a description does. Images get to our heads quicker and they tend to stay there longer. They enrapture us, make us dream about abstract concepts and distant places, summon up memories. But the mundane truth is… you not always get what you see.

Since Lonely Planet Myanmar branded their cover with a picture of a mysterious fisherman from Inle Lake,  the lake became one of the most popular tourist spots in Burma. Using just one leg to balance on the front of the boat, the picturesque fisherman guided his conical nets with the other leg. Damn, I was amazed by that picture! I couldn’t wait to see it with my own eyes!

When I finally saw it I was so disappointed as it turned out that those magical fishermen were nothing more than just a bunch of con artists!

I was upset but it’s an ill wind. We were lucky to meet a guy who was determined to show us the real fishermen. Mario took some awesome “a picture is worth a thousand words” shots. Inle Lake was amazing and I’m taking you there now!

The iconic Inle picture. All that glitter is not gold…

After the trek, our lovely German friends leave us to spend a couple of days in a nice hotel on the lake whilst David, Airi, Mario and I go to Nyaungshwe – a small town on the shore. It’s a typical tourist place. Narrow streets are swarmed by lazy backpackers but the vibe is surprisingly cool. There is also loads to do and loads to EAT there and we are talking seriously good food man. I was about to write “the best food we’ve had in Burma” but then I was like… hmm.. wait a minute, didn’t I just write that in one of my previous posts? I’m pretty sure I did. Well, the food in Burma is ace. We stay in Ostello Bello again. I hate chain hostels but after 3 days walking in the countryside I’m tired and all I want is a hot shower. Immediately.

On the way to Nyaungshwe.
Tea leaf salad – our tastiest memory of Burma!

Early bird gets the worm. I don’t know who said it first, but that person was damn right. As there was no “worms” for us in Bagan because it was raining every morning, we were really looking forward to catch some delightful sunrises on the lake. We get up at 4:30am (torture!). Our guide arrives late. We get on his dilapidated boat and lulled by the calming sound of the engine, we are ready for the adventure. Into the obscure wilderness of the lake!

The moment I notice the very first fisherman preparing to throw his net I sigh – ooo… this is so pretty! Much to my surprise we don’t stop to take pictures, we bypass him so quickly that I can’t even have a proper look. I turn my head and frown at our guide but he just smiles at me answering with his broken yet charming English – ACTOR FISHERMAN. I SHOW REAL LIFE, REAL FISHERMAN.

The fake fishermen of Inle Lake are the biggest tourist trap we’ve encounter in Burma. Bah, you can’t even call them “fishermen” – it’s just a bunch of con artists trying to fool you with their crazy yoga-like moves. Crafty fellows, I have to admit. And also pretty skillful so no surprise they are quite popular also among the Burmese (we saw at least 2 wedding photo sessions taking place on the lake that day). The tourist authority pay them to pose, but they want you to tip them, so if you are dreaming of a close-up shot be prepared to pay for it.

Te show must go on. We leave our con artist behind and float into the middle of the lake where we spot a real fishermen at work.

Wearing a tracksuit bottom, a camouflage jacket and a beanie this young man doesn’t look picture-perfect but the moment our eyes meet I am hypnotized.  

He is carefully balancing on one leg, wrapping the other one around the oar to guide the vessel through the freshwater lake. The skilled technique means he can stand and look out for reeds in the water and keep both hands free to handle the cumbersome nets. We stare for a moment and then we go away. We don’t want to disturb him.

This is undoubtedly the best shot we’ve taken during our trip. 
Some moments leave you speechless. It was one of them. 

Leaving the magic behind we go to one of the floating villages. It’s interesting to see how its people rely on the lake in their day to day tasks. We then go back to our hostel for breakfast with David and Airi. The inevitable question “so how was it?” eventually pops-up. David and Airi decided not to sacrifice their sleep for “yet another tourist trap”. Perhaps they were right, but…

For me the whole Burma with its beauty, its secrets and sorrows was hidden and written in the glinting eyes of that one fisherman. 

Our first day at Inle Lake made me think about the negative consequences of the booming travel industry. Those fake fishermen were real once and the artful way of fishing was their real life. Nowadays with engines on their boats there’s no need to paddle anymore so only a few does. Their picturesque fellows are paid by the tourist authority to pose. When will the real fishermen eventually disappear? The lake is shrinking and is suffering from pollution- sewage and other agricultural waste and the Shan and Pa O people are persecuted by the government. Idyllic pictures are not what they seem.

Was my thousand words worth more than the Lonely Planet cover?

Sunrise trip to Inle.
Floating villages.
Life on the lake.
That was one hell of a morning!